Celebrity funerals are almost always interesting. This could be because they’re big, because they’re unusual or simply because there’s a lot of coverage of them in the news. Most of us are even intrigued when a celebrity chooses to have no service at all. Here you can learn more about some of the most memorable and unusual famous funerals that have taken place over the years, including those of the monarchy, political figures, authors, musicians and more.
Unusual celebrity funerals
Hunter S. Thompson
The journalist Hunter S. Thompson had some very unique final wishes. He wanted his ashes shot out of a cannon shaped like a giant fist. This happened on 20 August 2005 in a private ceremony at Thompson’s home.
Reports say the funeral cost $3 million. It was paid for by the actor Johnny Depp.
Jim Henson is best known for creating The Muppets, the famous puppet troupe that includes characters like Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy. When Henson died in 1990, The Muppets were the star performers at his memorial service. They featured in several performances, including one where Big Bird sang the fan-favourite song ‘Bein’ Green’.
Life magazine described Henson’s memorial service as ‘an epic and almost unbearably moving event’.
Celebrities who didn’t have a funeral service
When Beatles star John Lennon was murdered in 1980, many expected that he’d have an extravagant funeral service. After all, Lennon was one of the world’s most famous musicians, with millions of fans who were keen to pay their respects.
However, Lennon’s wife Yoko Ono didn’t want a formal funeral. Instead, she had Lennon’s body secretly cremated without a funeral ceremony. This was an early example of a direct cremation – a type of simple funeral where the body is cremated without a service. Direct cremations are becoming more popular now but were almost unheard of in 1980.
Ono later arranged a 10-minute silent vigil for people to pay their respects. This vigil happened at the same time all around the world. Lennon’s fans continue to hold a vigil every year on the same date – 14 December.
David Bowie is another popular musician who didn’t have a conventional funeral. Like Lennon, Bowie had a direct cremation with no formal funeral service. Bowie arranged a direct cremation before his death because – in his words – he wanted to ‘go without any fuss’.
Bowie’s ashes weren’t buried in a grave. He asked for them to be scattered in Bali, Indonesia.
Anita Brookner wrote many famous novels, including the Booker Prize-winning Hotel du Lac. When she died in 2016 aged 87, she had a direct cremation instead of a traditional funeral service.
This was her choice. As her death notice said, ‘at Anita's request there will be no funeral’.
The actor Doris Day died in 2019, aged 97. As she requested, there was no funeral service, memorial service or even a headstone. Her manager, Bob Bashara, said he wasn’t sure why she didn’t want a send-off but guessed it might be ‘because she was a very shy person’.
After her death, fans were asked to donate to her animal charity if they wanted to pay their respects.
Eco-friendly celebrity funerals
Peter Stringfellow was famous for owning nightclubs, so you might expect his funeral to have been like a big party. However, it was quite the opposite. Stringfellow wanted a natural burial. So when he died in 2018, he was buried in a quiet woodland burial ground close to the Chiltern Hills nature reserve.
Luke Perry chose a unique type of burial before his death in 2019. The Beverly Hills 90210 actor was buried in a ‘mushroom suit’, a type of eco-friendly shroud invented by South Korean artist Jae Rhim Lee.
The mushroom suit, or ‘Infinity Burial Suit’, is made of biodegradable organic cotton mixed with mushroom spores. As the mushrooms grow, they help to break down the person’s body while releasing nutrients that help other plants grow. Lee also claims the suit can help get rid of toxins that are present in our bodies.
Desmond Tutu was a Christian bishop and activist who died in 2021. Before his death, he asked for a simple service and a plain wooden coffin – ‘the cheapest available’. He also asked for a water cremation, rather than a traditional burial or cremation.This process turns a person’s body into ash using a mixture of water, chemicals and heat. Tutu was passionate about looking after the environment, so he may have chosen this as a more sustainable option.
Biggest celebrity funerals
Princess Diana’s funeral took place on 6th September 1997, just 7 days after she was killed in a car crash in Paris. Her coffin, which was draped in the royal standard, was taken from Kensington Palace to Westminster Abbey. The Tenor Bell tolled every minute. During her funeral service, friend Elton John sang Candle in the Wind. It’s estimated that over 1 million people turned up to witness the procession, making it one of the most famous funeral marches in recent history. The funeral was also televised, with an estimated 2.5 billion viewers worldwide.
Michael Jackson’s funeral was a relatively intimate affair given his level of fame. A small and private ceremony was held for his family. However, after the ceremony, a public memorial service was held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Over 17,500 guests attended, including well-known celebrities, and over 2.5 billion viewers tuned in to watch from home, making it one of the most famous funerals of celebrities to date.
Queen Elizabeth II
When a monarch passes away, their bodies are placed for the public to view. This is called lying-in-state. For Queen Elizabeth II, this took place at the Palace of Westminster (also known as the Houses of Parliament) between 14th September and 19th September 2022. During this time, 200,000 people visited to pay their respects. On the morning of the Queen’s funeral, her body was taken to Westminster Abbey and a state funeral was held. It’s estimated that 1 million people attended the funeral procession and 28 million UK viewers watched the BBC’s funeral coverage.
Winston Churchill’s funeral was the first state funeral held for a politician in its century. It’s also said to have been the biggest national event since the Queen’s coronation in 1953. The funeral procession took the coffin from Westminster Hall to St Paul’s, Tower Hill and Festival Hall, before departing on a train from Waterloo to Bladon. This was broadcast live by the BBC, resulting in 4 hours of coverage that was viewed by 350 million people around the world.
Victor Hugo wanted to have a pauper’s funeral, but instead he ended up having the biggest celebrity funeral France has seen. On 1st June 1885, over 2 million people turned up to watch the funeral procession from the Arc de Triomph to the Panthéon. This was more than the entire population of Paris at the time.
Martin Luther King Jr
Martin Luther King Jr’s funeral took place after his assassination. The New York Times wrote “Dr King’s murder is a national disaster”, while President Lyndon Johnson declared a national day of mourning, lowering American flags to half-mast. Around 100,000 people followed his procession and the funeral was attended by civil rights leaders, politicians, public servants and celebrities.